Rioja, Spain’s most renowned red wine, may not get much recognition as one of the world’s greatest red wines because the variety that dominates, tempranillo, typically does not have very high acidity.
As such, the red wines it makes can often be earlier drinking, and thus older examples rarely show the power of red wine you get from more classic French grapes.
For that and other reasons, tempranillo hasn’t had a great impact as a grape variety in California, although plantings of it seem to be increasing as wineries seek alternative varieties with which to interest the adventurous millennial crowd.
The best Riojas I have tasted usually have a few other grapes added in, with grenache (garnacha in Spain) a favored addition because it offers red cherry and spiced fruit. Grapes with high acid also are used occasionally to produce a wine with better balance.
Until recently, the best and most consistent American tempranillos I knew about came from Idaho’s Snake River Valley, where a half dozen producers, using exceptional fruit, still produce stylish wine from the varietal.
I tasted only seven tempranillos last week as a judge at the Calaveras County Fair wine competition, where none of the wines received less than a silver medal! I gave three of the wines gold medals.
All of the wines came from the Sierra foothills, and one of the best in the group was from winemaker Jeff Runquist, who knows of the variety’s limitations and works diligently to produce a well structured wine.
“I know it to be early (harvested) and still low acid,” Runquist said in an interview.
“In the research I have done, the variety seems to be rather bland with undistinguished (aroma) characters. So we have always looked for some graciano as an addition.”
The higher-acid grape graciano, when used at about 5 percent to 12 percent, he said, helps balance the wine.
That grape also has flavors that are compatible. “It tends to have more of a dark-fruit character, with some tobacco leaf and herb notes,” he said.
Rioja often spends three years in barrels, he said, “and another year in bottle (before release).” That may well account for the fact that such wines rarely age a long time and should probably be consumed young, he added.
His own tempranillo (2014 Jeff Runquist from Ann Kraemer’s highly regarded Shake Ridge Vineyard in Amador County, $32) is brilliant wine with an aroma of smoke, bright cherry fruit, pipe tobacco and a richness and silkiness that makes it instantly lovable.
I also loved 2014 Inner Sanctum, Lodi ($28). Graceful with spice and oak notes and a supple, it has an approachable structure with acidity that carries the wine rather than aggressive tannins.
Wine of the Week: 2016 Black Sheep Cinsault, Calaveras County, “BaaJolais” ($14): A gold medal-winner at the Calaveras County Fair, this Rhóne Valley blending grape rarely is made as a varietal wine, but when it is, it can be interesting. Here it is brilliant! Made like a Nouveau Beaujolais, it has wild spice notes, fresh grape-y fruit, not a trace of over-ripeness, and it’s one of the most quaffable I have ever tasted. It may be hard to find, but the winery will ship and, at the price, it is a bargain: blacksheepwinery.com/online-store.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.